VERSES IN SURDİBİ

(Surdibi is the old town in Istanbul)

1

The Buried History of Poverty

 

Why do I murmur these words?

Walking in Surdibi beneath the city walls

not whistling because I know

I’m getting older, and can only answer

loneliness with loneliness.

 

What a still-learning and impatient time it was

when the world was set in accordance with our steps.

Now, in this flood of compassion

we collide like flying clouds of dust –

scrap-yard apprentices scattered willy nilly

out in the crooked streets – that is all.

 

In Byzantium’s mossy walls,

or on the tired windowsills of Topkapı

were there traces of our childish world?

or in the mouldy histories of fishermen decorated with tales

and of unmentioned stonemasons?

 

And here now sullen car-mechanics

hold the odour of history -

the raw truth of poverty and offer it

politely with their oily gloves

Remember it, I say remember

so you’ll be believed.

 

Why do I say this?

It’s by forgetting that we feed ourselves in savage streets

 

Because like the seasons of the year

we’ve lived through raids, migrations, invasions and salvations

and we’ll never again find the flower we left

long ago on this sultans’ grave

built upon the grave of another kingdom.

*

 

2

We’re Strangers Here, Dear Sir

 

He isn’t the kind that dies, he says,

Did I suggest the opposite

As I stood looking at his face?

But there’s no hiding around here, my dear Sir.

Doesn’t he know that in these streets

Death is present in the eyes of everyone?

 

He takes out a ledger or two with old writing –

I bend towards it, as if this will make things clearer.

-everything left from him will bring good luck, I believe-

But we’ll hide, won’t we, my dear Sir?

We’ll hide as much as we can hide in this forsaken place.

 

Here, houses abandoned in every street

A thousand years of history summarized in architecture.  I wonder -

Does he love the years he has lived? Accept

the ones collapsed and gone. He says

wine still burns his throat – is it strange to celebrate that?

I am confronted with a sweet and sneaky fate.

 

It’s snowing hard outside, we line up all we have

Around a tin can made of fire

We’re not kids now. More’s the pity I think

The man’s glad about it, my dear Sir.’ Let’s hope

Blacks and sleepless Bulgarians don’t rush out

Let’s hope incomprehensible oaths don’t collide in the exhaust fumes

He couldn’t care less that he had died and was in the street and

-how it happened I don’t know- I was just the one he stopped to talk to there.

 

I'm thinking now

If I had a lucky hat, maybe,

I would also be not afraid of dying.

Now I’m a stranger in these parts – good thing, too,

That I’m a stranger to this shitty world of ours-

For it’ll set on fire the knots inside our heads

I talk of dreams I think are really great,

Limitless maps and so on – and even though

Maybe no-one’s listening, that’s just fine by me.

 

It’s snowing hard outside

And I keep rubbing that summary of history in my palm

I’m so afraid, what if no-one listens? Not a soul...

 

It’s snowing hard outside

‘But there’s no summary of life, my dear Sir’

This loneliness of fire

Will always find a tin can to burn in

To melt away the barbed wire it comes up against.

*

 

3

Child

 

In this damnable world

Either we don’t like anything or else

We bite off more than we can chew;

Like loving the people without

Forgiving them

Like changing them without hurting them.

As it doesn’t work,

You’ve got to be a kid

Never tried, never mistaken.

 

All have to be forgotten

Page three cuttings ripped from papers

Pictures on faded bubble gum wrappers

well known places on destination boards of buses.

 

Can’t this be done, my dear? Right?

In those poor and ugly streets

A child inside of me

Is trying to blow up a ball,

And will it still be evening?

 

Go on, ask his name before mama calls him back

*

 

4

Bike

 

far away form my familiar childhood

is this boy trying to fix the breaks of a bike

 

I must stop trying to learn lessons

 

from his hands accustomed to iron and copper

in streets where we hung around on summer days

 

from the long hours he works

whereas we hate working itself in this century

 

from his incurious eyes

looking at the stuff we saved from a decaying sky

 

from the darkness he wants to get rid of

like a low cloud he drags round

 

seeing that I don’t know how to love

I must leave them all behind and go

 

all those books about the working class

that I know by heart, and stop equating

unanswered loves with revolutions

 

and I must leave my familiar childhood

at the top of the hill along with that bike

whose brakes are bust

*

 

5

Me and My Toy Lightning Flashes

 

D’you think it didn’t happen, my dear friend?

I’ve told small lies and fibs, of course I have.

They’re like loose change here in my pockets

And of course I’ve told much bigger ones as well.

 

In the city of great dreams and great lies, let’s get this clear,

Everyone’s Istanbul belongs to them alone.

Mine belongs to several women

-no names, of course-

Full of all they have thrown out of other towns

Everybody’s days belong to them, dear friend

Just as everybody goes and lives their death themselves:

 

For the bus driver it’s the steel feathers

Of the Bosphorus Bridge that give him wings.

The Governor’s Office for the retired policeman;

The entrance door of a pistol pointed at his head;

The street I walk down of a morning is the middle

Of a handfull of pills for a woman who’s been left;

And the pavements of Surdibi are

The eyes of a homeless man who’s gazing into mine

You, like a god with his nose in air, pathetic and disguised -

Be sure to take a good look at the world!

 

Look at his Istanbul,

But you can’t touch it, just look

Like low-down angels; new observations

Write new verdicts in the margin in books of dreams

The Istanbul inside his overcoat – forbid that for a start–

A few banknotes hidden in a shoe – give that away.

He’s heard of Ayasophia – now talk about its architectural features –

 

But you and your toy lightning flashes -

All you can do is pass on to History what you’ve seen, all you can do

Is be dead scared of what you’ve seen, face the tree and count to ninety-nine

 

Look, there’s nothing at all in common between that guy and hope

But he loves this city more than anyone, smile

At the sun that will hit your face a moment later and

Maybe it’ll smile back at you.

 

But you don’t even know, do you? That

There’s a cloud covering the sun.

Now who’s going to be sorry for whom?

 

6

An Excuse

 

broken bottles and that crutch of his around

I put myself in his place, knowing

that walking is happiness itself etcetera…

 

I know each child has unanswered questions, and

happy endings only exist in dust on windows at the back

 

but first of all, like the gulls circling around the city tip,

we must hunt with marble balls, one by one,

for things we in this neighbourhood know as fear

And then we must go and find that question

 

Oh for the sake of a thousand beavers! If we must die

then we must die together. Lets in any case -

isn’t that why I’m here?

but as the local train goes clattering on its way

I forget all I’ve learnt from the blackboard

of cracked walls we pass.

On arriving home it’s all gone from my head.

 

For the first thing we must remember is our dreams.

That waking up, etcetera, is happiness itself.

Then we must release the seagulls near the tip into the sea

 

The guy holds out his wine to me,

I must find a good excuse.

 

trans. by Georgina Özer, ed. by Raman Mundair

*

 

from New 'Questions From A Worker Who Reads'

Questions From a Sailor Who Reads

 

do they mention in schools

the colour of the flag they hoist in Potemkin touched upon

instead of messing up blackboards with white chalk

 

or the coloured illustrations of slave ships in the Mediterranean

the lost songs of mutinous mariners - 

 

or that, in Beykoz, glassworkers once 

wiped their eyes with pieces of broken glass

 

that in Eyüp when boatmen enter that profession 

they mummify their hearts with moss

 

that as the sunlight hit Süleymaniye Mosque

its papers burst into flames beneath the glare of all the historians

 

or that on Galata Bridge there is still some dust from the archives

on the finger of a retired official removing the hook from a fish

 

that safety pins makes drops of blood appear

on the dark skin of children returning from the public fountains

 

that migrants who never see the sea are the true Stambouliotes 

seascapes hang in their school corridors

 

that the sun still hits the eyes of a cleaning lady

who fell while washing the windows

 

what the captain was thinking about when he nearly crashed into the pier?     

or the names of illeagal migrants on the Blacksea.

over which fish and which dead bodies did we pass?

who made love on the deck on a winter day?

 

so many reports.
so many questions.

isn’t life only

a rope tied between distant dreams and the alnd?

 

trans. by Bill Herbert

*

 

Postcards From A Traveller Who Reads

 

'everything flows,' said the Ancient Aegean

since the very first rain-charm

but everywhere along a river

poverty is much the same, it is like a birth mark 

 

'everything,' he said - even those things

we suppose are sins and those we suppose are destinies

from our doorstep and from our burnt skin to the rivers

 

perhaps for this reason, Hindus bathing in the Ganges

are the ones who have already tamed death

 

as for the Amazon, I suppose it's the most authoritative dictionary of human idioms

for novelists working in Çukurova

the Ceyhan River is a fictional character

 

Kızılırmak River is

a tetchy but talented folk poet

 

rivers are infinite as numbers

you notice Asi has

its hand on Syria's knee

 

if you ask me Meriç is

a child sleeping restlessly between its mitera and baba

 

as for Sakarya and Susurluk

they are close relatives who only visit each other once in a long while

like words from the Kurdish and the Turkish ends of the country

 

although everything flows from day to day

the Tigris and Euphrates are arm in arm

much the same, don't you think, as the millions of shackled slaves

in those souvenir photos, transported from Africa

 

 trans. by Bill Herbert

 

*

from Swap

Beginning For Beginners

 

Once I begin climbing with someone

I never look down, I told you

look directly into my eyes,

they suit you. And you told me

lovers always get caught by leaving

their eye-prints behind.

 

Once you begin to get bored

of rules, neighbors phoning, false speeches

go ahead, shut the door, suit yourself.

 

Your heart is underage, can't ink

the deals, sign deeds, borrow money

from legitimate sources, tossing them

like confetti might suit you. I've been told

it is hard to talk

about old flames.

But I don't beat about the bush, see

 

torching also needs some talent

and you touch with the hands

of someone whose parachute

didn't open, you've spent your whole life

blocking the ground. Let the reporter say

it went down like this:

 

I didn't know what color the sea was

till I woke up beside you –  I was born

on the coast – saw sea for the first time.

Does it suit an honorable Gentlelady to shock

a boy his first day at the beach?

 

Like at backgammon, I've been beaten

“two reverse one flat”.

Whenever my heart is witnessed

I let it go. I read somewhere

all crimes of passion begin

with a set of snake eyes.

While I kept rolling blanks,

a woman suited to a red dress

was sashaying out

of the scene. I knew it was you,

recognized the color

of your defiance.

 

Once I begin

I never look back. You shouldn't.

Yet, you must miss me sometimes,

when it suits you, remember

our first date, when my eyes

cocked and smoked for you. Because I've been told

all lovers return to the murder scene. My dear, may I

have the pleasure of this crime?

 

trans. by Ryan van Winkle

*

 

Reality

 

The terminal is useless

if we are not going to meet

our memories shouldering

 

cider and chips as they slide

from the ferry. Every morning

I iron memories of my old love,

 

straight, flat and pregnant

with childish questions

I dreamed then forgot.

 

I keep her photos ready, alien

on the blue bedspread as pirates

on a quiet blue lake,

 

like a crossword stuck

in the corner of my life

would she like to answer

 

my call for a third night with Nastenka?

All the facades in Baharive street are so clever

they know she still hides herself in brown cardigans

 

but I wonder why she won't go out

when there are no clouds

in her pockets.

 

When we finished our final tea

Istanbul quit repeating itself

and I took off my redundancies.

 

Reality can be softened

by daises, cut and waiting

in a vase I never bought

 

and just now

the first rain

of autumn begins.

 

trans. by Ryan van Winkle

*

 

One Out of Three

 

the first man to light a kerosene lamp in the street, in beyoğlu or rome

he should've burned this city to the ground

they wrote in one of the temples in ancient egypt

while drinking beer from a common bowl

kicking over the barrels

and flicking a match

is your only elixir to forget

but after the invention of gunpowder it was learned

a city can be burned

nothing can be forgotten

 

if it is true that a man puts a dove beneath his dark raincoat to warm it up

that another always buys from the same bagel-seller

because he knows the man is cold

that a gypsy girl is happiest when she finds a doll in the rubbish

that I could never say to the road-sweepers that I really love the fallen leaves

that I hesitated to help the rag-and-bone man pull his cart

just because he was the same age as me 

if it is true 

that I secretly inhale the dust in second hand bookstores

then it is certainly the case 

that sailors only go to sea to say that one sentence on the tip of their tongue

 

for the moment

I appear and disappear in my own dreams

and disperse myself throughout the streets

there are traces of you everywhere we’ve been

can a street

sometimes lead to a few months ago?

 

is this cold weather really worth getting ill for?

I don’t like those who sit outside on the ferry

only in the summer

because they're prepared to brave the winter

beetles can just fly

around all August -

come December I am going to knock on your deaf door…

 

there are four seasons

here three of them are winter...

 

trans. by Bill Herbert

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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